July 2008 – LTTE seize Norwegian vehicles
Defence Ministry lashes out at INGO community
July/Aug – 57 Div, TF I confront ditch cum bunds
57 Div takes Thunnukai and Uilankulam
TF I captures Nachchikudah
Trincomalee SLN base bombed
Gemunu Watch under chemical attack
At a time a section of the international community, the media and various LTTE front organisations are using a recently released UN report to support their call for a war crimes investigation against the Sri Lankan government, the role played by the UN and some INGOs during eelam war IV, with the focus on the Vanni offensive (March 2007-May 2009) needs to be examined.
The INGO community was under the impression that the government couldn’t and shouldn’t interfere with its operations. They easily influenced politicians as well as officials, who turned a blind eye to their activities. They had the protection of the UN mission in Colombo. Successive governments chose to ignore what was going on in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, though it was only too well known that certain INGO representatives collaborated with the LTTE.
Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa took a strong stand on clandestine INGO operations. Acknowledging that the UN and INGOs had an important role to play to alleviate the suffering of civilians, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa insisted that the LTTE couldn’t be allowed to exploit those engaged in humanitarian operations.
Norwegian NGO exposed
Retreating Tigers removed several heavy vehicles belonging to Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) to build a ditch cum bund to protect its major bases. The Army received information about the removal of vehicles in late July 2008. Having verified the incident, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa accused the LTTE of using equipment belonging to the INGO community to strengthen its defences. A highly embarrassed William Atkins, the Resident Representative of the NPA, in a letter to Defence Secretary Rajapaksa claimed that the LTTE had removed one earth moving vehicle, one tractor with water bowser trailer, one Toyota Land Cruiser, one Tata pick-up, one Mitsubishi canter twin-cab, two Ashok Leyland trucks, one Tata 407 mini truck and one Tata water tanker.
The NPA launched mine clearing operations in Sri Lanka immediately after the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in late Feb 2002. Although the organisation suspended its operations in Jan. 2008 in the Vanni due to the escalation of the conflict, it kept all its vehicles in the war zone. The NPA, which worked under the auspices of the UN, represented the Norwegian trade union movement. The agency declined to respond to The Island queries in this regard. The Norwegian Embassy, too, refused to comment.
The NPA remained silent on the alleged forcible removal of its vehicles until the Defence Ministry exposed the incident. In the wake of Defence Ministry criticism of the NPA’s conduct, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Country Team issued a brief media statement through the UN mission in Colombo requesting the LTTE to return all NPA assets immediately (UN confirms MoD charge on INGO vehicles in LTTE hands––The Island July 31, 2008). Subsequently, the NPA claimed that three of the vehicles had been returned. It was the second known incident of its kind. In early 2007, the Defence Ministry accused the UN mission in Colombo of having had secret negotiations with the LTTE to secure the release of two local UN employees detained by the LTTE for civilians to flee the war zone (LTTE detains UN workers––The Island April 20, 2007 and ‘UN had talks with Tigers on the sly’ with strap line UN workers in LTTE custody––The Island April 23, 2007)). Subsequent to The Island revelation, the UNSG office admitted that its mission in Colombo had not informed UN headquarters of the abduction until the media revealed the incident (UN HQ admits Colombo office kept it in the dark––The Island April 28, 2007).
The LTTE blatantly used the UN and INGO community in support of its operations. In early 2008, troops arrested an armed local UN employee while trying to cross the Irretteperiyakulam checkpoint. He was entering a government held area carrying a pistol when a route check led to the recovery of the weapon. The UN worker was either an LTTE assassin or a helper tasked to transfer a pistol to a hit man operating in a government held area.
Gotabhaya speaks out
Defence Secretary Rajapaksa declared that depriving the LTTE of INGO and NGO support was a prerequisite for defeating terrorism. An irate Rajapaksa said that Task Force I (TFI) and the 57 Division advancing on western and central fronts, respectively had come across heavily fortified defence lines, consisting of ditches cum bunds across open terrain and waterways. The mounds built by the LTTE linking the western coastal line at Nachchikudah via Akkarayankulam to Thiruvurukandi posed a major challenge to the advancing troops. The Defence Secretary asserted that the LTTE could never have built such fortifications without using equipment made available by INGOs. (Defence Secretary: terrorists benefited by INGOs, NGOs––The Island Aug 8, 2008).
The bunds and ditches hindered the operations on both the Central and Western fronts in the Vanni. Although troops had encountered similar LTTE fortifications on the Jaffna front earlier, they never expected to encounter earth bunds constructed with an obstacle belt. The Defence Secretary alleged that the LTTE had used both INGO equipment and used forced civilian labour to build those defences.
Addressing the media in Colombo, Peace Secretariat chief, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha on Aug 18, 2008 urged the international community not to allow the LTTE to hold back civilians against their will. Wijesinha and Commissioner General of Essential Services, S. P. Divaratne estimated the number of INGO vehicles in the LTTE’s hands at 38 (Govt. vows to defeat Tigers, re-settle IDPs––The Island Aug 19, 2008).
The 57 Division liberated strategically important Thunnukai on the Vellankulam–Mankulam road and Uyilankulam situated 5 km north of Thunukkai on Aug. 22, 2008. Elite Special Forces played a crucial role in the battle for Thunukkai and Uilankulam. The Special Forces had fought ahead of 57 Division troops since the launch of its operations in March 2007. In May 2007, the then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka replaced the then Brigadier Sumith Manavadu, the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the Division. The change of command was made in the wake of the division suffering some battlefield setbacks. The liberation of Thunukai was one of the significant victories achieved by the division during 2008. The elite Charles Anthony ‘Brigade’ spearheaded the LTTE counter offensive. Having suffered heavy losses due to ground operations as well as continuing air strikes, the LTTE abandoned Thunnukai and Uyilankulam (Army takes commanding position west of A-9––The Island Aug. 23, 2008).
Having captured Illuppakkadavai (Aug 2, 2008), Vellankulam (Aug 12, 2008), Mulankavil and Pallavarayankaddu (Aug 12, 2008), Task Force I (TF I) evicted the LTTE from its base at Nachchikudah on Aug 21.
By the side of the A 32 road at Mulankavil, troops found a large LTTE cemetery where over 3,000 LTTE cadres had been buried over the years. Hundreds of LTTE families lived in the area, prompting the LTTE to engage in a desperate fight to halt the Army.
TF I achieved its target one day ahead of the 57 Division taking the equally important Thunukkai. Army Commandos made a huge contribution to the success achieved by TF I on the western flank, whereas Special Forces fought on the Central front. TF I came across another earth bund the LTTE had constructed to defend Nachchikudah, situated 8 km north of Vellankulam along the A 32 road. The LTTE earth bund extended from Nachchikudah to Akkarayankulam through Vannerikulam.
Earth bunds posed a massive challenge to the army. TF I struggled to demolish them. The SLAF played a critical role in the destruction of LTTE positions along the Karambakulam tank bund. Two days ahead of the operation, those pilots tasked with carrying out the operation were brought to TF I headquarters in the Mannar sector to rehearse under the instructions of the army chief.
During the battle for Nachchikudah, the LTTE used a chemical weapon against troops of the 12 Gemunu Watch (12GW). TF I and the 57 Division paid a heavy price to capture targets given to the respective formations.
Meanwhile, close on the heels of significant battlefield victories, the SLFP-led UPFA swept the Aug. 23, 2008 PC polls in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces bagging all 27 electorates in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Ratnapura and Kegalle districts. The government’s war against terror contributed immensely to the UPFA’s success on the political front. It was a personal victory for President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who vowed to finish off the LTTE soon (President wins ‘referendum’ on the war front––The Island Aug. 25, 2008).
Air raid on Trincomalee navy base
In a desperate bid to offset heavy battlefield defeats, the LTTE launched an air attack targeting the Trincomalee navy base on the night of Aug. 26, 2008. Although it didn’t cause serious damage, the government was upset over its failure to shoot down the aircraft involved in the operation. The SLAF launched jets from the Katunayake air base, in an abortive bid to intercept ‘Air Tigers.’